Simple criteria: novels only, readily available, not conceived in the fertile ground of John Dickson Carr’s imagination. I’ve also restricted the impossible crime to being the comission of the murder – people stabbed or shot while alone in a room, effectively – more to help reduce the possible contenders than anything else. Several stone cold classics are absent through the inclusion of other invisible events but that’s a future list (or five…).
Carr – doyen of the impossible crime, responsible for more brilliant work in this subgenre than any other three authors combined – will eventually get his own list (or five…), I just have to figure out how to separate them out; restricting it to five novels was hard enough for this list, but if you’re looking to get started in locked room murders these would be my suggestions:
Nine Times Nine (1940) by Anthony Boucher Take on the religious fanatics at your peril (Scientology, I’m not looking at you…not even glancing that far back in the dictionary)! One minute the killer’s not in the room, then you can see him through the window, and the next minute he’s gone…but all the windows were locked and the doors were either locked or observed from the outside (and, no, no-one is lying). Simple, compelling, superbly written. And the amateur detective is a nun! Boucher did not write enough crime novels, but was hugely influential in the genre and this shows you why. The sequel is, alas, really quite poor, but put that out of your mind and dive into this at the earliest opportunity. [Available from Orion in print and ebook]
Mr. Splitfoot (1968) by Helen McCloy Not technically a locked room, because the door is deliberately left open, but that’s mere nit-picking. No-one is near our stooge poor unfortunate when they peg it, so it’s still an impossible murder. Death By Vengeful Poltergeist is the initial verdict, practically a sub-subgenre of its own, but then if people will keep sleeping in haunted rooms what do they expect? Does the ‘group of people in a house and one of them must be the killer’ thing very well, there’s something almost classically Christie about it in that regard; I would have loved a map of the house, part of me just loves a crime scene map, but it’s a minor issue and a very clever idea that builds well on the foundations of the genre. [Available from Orion in print and ebook]
Sealed Room Murder (1951) by Rupert Penny Looking for a murder in a sealed room? Where better to start!? This is a witty, gorgeously-plotted mystery with clues all over the place, a virtual textbook in the long-game of setting everything up in the first two-thirds before paying off to maximum effect. There is even a series of diagrams come the explanation of this stabbing-in-the-back-while-alone-in-a-room that show how the whole thing was done, so don’t flick ahead or you’ll ruin it. Perhaps a bit technical for some, but I’ve never had a problem with clever technical schemes, and this is the origin of one of the cleverest. Of all my discoveries in recent years, Rupert Penny is probably my favourite and, though this was his final locked room, it’s a perfect introduction. [Available from Ramble House in print only]
Come to Paddington Fair (195?) by Derek Smith Until recently you would have to pay “we’ve kidnapped your children” quantities of money to spend five minutes in a room where a copy of this was rumoured to have once been, it was that rare. Thanks to the detective-like endeavours of John Pugmire, however, it’s now available to everyone. Not a locked room, but a shooting on a London stage that adds layer upon layer of cleverness until you’re staring a frank impossibility in the face. This was never published in Smith’s lifetime and his debut, Whistle Up the Devil, is probably better known and equally ingeniously impossible, but I want to advertise this so that people are aware of it as well. Don’t ask me to pick between them, however. [Available from Locked Room International in print and ebook]
The Big Bow Mystery (1892) by Israel Zangwill Not, as I first imagined, a mystery concerning a particularly large and ornate knot, but one instead set in the district of east London. Anyone rolling their eyes and considering it a token inclusion has my sympathies, because they’ve missed out on a truly exceptional little book. If you just want the murder of a lodger found with his throat slashed in his locked and sealed room, read only the first and last chapters and be done with it. If, however, you’re interested in how to convey social attitudes to class, convention, societal progress and the petty furies of human endeavour – I know, yawn, right – in a way that’s light on its feet and honestly, timelessly funny then read the intervening chapters too (the court proceedings still make me smile). And while doing this Zangwill is also innovating many of the ideas still used in crime fiction today, and with a freshness most contemporary authors can only dream about. Not too shabby for something over 120 years old, eh? [Available in various print versions, or free as an ebook, and recently republished by Collins as The Perfect Crime in print and ebook]
Disclaimer: opinions are my own, other novels are available, consult your doctor if symptoms persist.